By last night Steven Gerrard had not ventured into the territory of personal turmoil with Wayne Rooney. "Who am I to talk about things like that with Wayne Rooney? He's his own man," he said. But journeying through the elegant streets here brought the cold chill of recollection for the England captain about how it feels to be assailed by troubles back home and to attempt to put them aside when the football starts.
It was in Basle's St Jakob-Park Stadium that England's captain experienced what he remembered last night as one of his worst moments in football: Liverpool's arrival to face the local side in the 2002-03 Champions League group stage. His parents, Paul and Julie, were in the throes of the divorce which devastated him, and his form was painful to behold. Liverpool were 3-0 down by half-time and Gerrard, utterly ineffectual, was subjected to a rocket by Gérard Houllier and not even sent out for the second half during which he watched Liverpool eliminated, despite levelling the tie 3-3.
Houllier declared late that night that we were witnessing a case of a young star allowing his publicity to run away with him. "I hope he doesn't believe everything that is written in the press about him, but he seems to be a good reader," the then Liverpool manager said of Gerrard. "That is when you start going downwards." Gerrard wrote poignantly in his biography of the effect at the time of his parents' marriage breaking down.
Though his attempts to make light of that yesterday – "that was an excuse. I was just terrible. You have to blame it on something" – seemed to be a product of the levity he has tried to bring to his captain's press conferences in Rio Ferdinand's absence, his was an absorbing description of how it feels when a footballer finds his world caving in.
Gerrard's last moments out on the pitch here before his reacquaintance with it in an energetic training session last night came on the disconsolate, track-suited walk he took to the Liverpool fans whose Champions League hopes were dead for another year, though the message for Rooney is that personal calamity can sometimes form a part of the journey in sport.
"You learn from things like that that happen to you, throughout your career," Gerrard said. "Highs and lows ... that was certainly a low in my career. I was sitting in the dressing room on my own having been taken off in one of my first Champions League games. The players go back out 3-0 down and you've put in a bad performance. It's a low point, let me tell you – probably one of the worst performances I've put in. I totally deserved to be whipped off at half-time. But it helps you become the player you are. You learn from experience. I'm the player I am today from learning and recovering from my lows, rather than dwelling on my highs."
Looking at Gerrard now – an accomplished international captain, who has somehow evolved into a lot more than the stand-in he has been since Ferdinand's absence – that November night in 2002 seems an eternity away, though Gerrard's court case last year has made him far more acquainted with the need "to separate; to divide" the private and public, as Fabio Capello put it last night. His form during the case actually proved immense, silencing Everton fans' plans to taunt him during the derby game in its midst. "If you have an issue off the pitch, its where you have to park it," Gerrard reflected. "Sometimes football can be a release from it. Once the game's started you're focused on what happens on the pitch, not what's going on off it. I played some of my best football when I was going through the court case. I'm sure, once the game starts, Wayne will focus on the game."
This was proving to be another consummate performance from a player whose brief England captaincy – which may end tonight with Ferdinand possibly back in Premier League action at Everton on Saturday and returning to the international fold for next month's match against Montenegro – seems to have involved an awful lot of "cleaning out the stables", as one writer put it yesterday. The "Terrygate" incident in South Africa, brutal World Cup elimination and now this... "Rio's nearly back though, isn't he?" countered Gerrard. "This is the last time you'll see me here. Enjoy it while I'm here."
It was a smart response, in keeping with those in which, during his brief though challenging tenure as captain, he has hurdled any sense of awkwardness, or attrition, which might exist between himself and his inquisitors. Was that a faintly discernible sense of loss we observed at the thought he must now give up these duties? Gerrard's former Liverpool team-mate Danny Murphy suggested this week that he should be considered as a permanent captain, though the man himself was not falling for that line of conversation.
"You're trying to catch me out... Rio's the captain. I've been the stand-in captain," he said. "I've tried to do the best job I can do. But I've really loved leading the team out, every minute of it, even the games we've lost. I've been proud to lead the team out. I've given everything I've got and, even when Rio's back as captain, I'll continue to lead by example and try and do the best I can."
So for now, a last hurrah of sorts – on paper the toughest game of England's qualifying campaign, with the sub-plot of a another encounter with the striker Alexander Frei, who compounded that forgettable European campaign by spitting at Gerrard when Basle and Liverpool met. "I don't hold grudges, and he's apologised since, so we move on," said Gerrard, who was more absorbed last night with the strength of the Swiss defence. Intriguingly, Gerrard also revealed he had followed the Swiss very closely at the World Cup in order to see midfielder Gökhan Inler, who had been rumoured to be a replacement for Javier Mascherano at Anfield. "I thought he was good, but I don't control which players we sign," Gerrard said.
The captain's preparations did not involve throwing an arm around Rooney's shoulder. "You guys know Wayne like me. I don't think I'll need to," he said. And would he start the game with him? "Yes." So spoke the voice of sometimes bitter experience.
Gerrard by numbers
83 Games the midfielder has started in his 86 caps for England.
19 International goals. His first for England came against Germany in the remarkable 5-1 victory in Munich in September 2001.
14Occasions Gerrard has captained England, winning seven, losing four and drawing three.
3 Different England managers have named him as captain. Sven Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello – including his first match in charge, against Switzerland in 2008.
4Major tournaments played in – 2006 and 2010 World Cups and the 2000 and 2004 European Championships.